Hyde and Seek
'Excuse me, is this seat taken?'
Hugh Seeker glanced up from his plate. The stew wasn't very good, but hungry as he was, it held his full attention. Normally, he watched his surroundings more carefully. His profession demanded it. Hugh slowly put down his spoon, expecting trouble.
It was very dark in the tavern, and smoke from the fireplace stung his eyes. The proprietor of the Moth was too cheap to buy good firewood, and all of his candles smelled like kitchen drippings as they burned. Still, it was warm inside, and the beer was good, which was all Hugh cared about. He scanned the room, certain that he'd heard someone speak.
At first Hugh didn't see anything, but then he realized that there was a girl standing directly in front of him. She was about sixteen, with short black hair and singularly unsettling green eyes. Almost pretty, but a bit too hard-featured for his tastes, and much too young. She stood with her arms crossed, a very obstinate expression on her face.
"Is this seat taken?" The girl repeated, leaning over and poking her pointed nose at Hugh.
He scooted his bench back and pushed her away.
"Easy there! I heard you the first time," he said.
Hugh was a big man, well past his prime, and never favored by the stars with good looks. Most people gave him a wide berth, but the girl had all the manners of a roadside bandit. Her behavior was made more peculiar by the clothing she wore, a very modest long dress and starched white apron. Even her hair was covered, at least partially, by a kerchief. Young girls normally favored fancy braids and the shortest skirts their mothers would allow. The girl who'd interrupted Hugh looked like an old maid, except that her dress was blue.
An argent seven-pointed star on a field azure was heraldic charge of the House of Wells, and until quite recently, wearing those colors had been a good way to gets one's head separated from one's shoulders. Blue was still considered very daring in the East, and most who wore it so brazenly weren't exactly sane.
"You can have the table," Hugh replied. "I'm heading home."
Hugh had not gone home in twenty years, and had no intention of doing so, but he stood anyway. The girl quickly sat on the bench across from him, and trapped his hand with hers. Her fingers were cold, and she had an impressive grip.
"Stay," she said.
It was not a question. He sat back down.
"What do you want with me, girl?" Hugh asked. He waited for her response.
"I am told," she said, her voice no louder than a whisper. "That you are a Seeker."
"I'm not a thief," Hugh retorted. Those words chilled him. Many people thought that Seekers were thieves. In truth, Hugh was often a thief, and a fine one too... but he wouldn't let a stranger sully the name of his honorable profession. More importantly, the girl sitting across from him made him feel wobbly. It was best that she believe him to be a legitimate businessman with no interest in nicking rare or valuable things. Hugh had a feeling that she was about to ask him to Find something better left Unsought.
The girl looked disappointed, but she was not deterred. "Hear me out," she said.
"Speak your piece," Hugh replied gruffly. "I haven't got all night." He sipped his ale and tried to look professional.
"I have very little time myself," the girl paused. "Seeker, I need you to Find my shadow."
"Your shadow?" Hugh sputtered, almost choking on his drink. "Girl, are you out of your mind?" He might have laughed. Her request seemed ridiculous, but then he noticed a chessboard on a table in the middle of the room. The pawns made the most of the faint light, and the rooks looked like castle towers. The girl sitting across from him should have been swathed in black, sitting where she was, directly in front of the fire. But for some reason, she cast no shadow at all.
"How did you lose your shadow?" Hugh hissed. His nose told him "magic". When he leaned across the table, he smelled a distinctive, sharp, sulphury smell always associated with wizardry.
"A... minor miscalculation," the girl confessed.
Hugh grimaced. So the girl was a wizard? Only wizards said rubbish like that.
"And how am I to help you Find it?" Hugh demanded. "Seekers look for objects, you understand. A missing key, a missing coin purse. You're not supposed to lose your shadow!"
"My shadow rightfully belongs to me, I know it well, and I have a vested interest in getting it back. Those are the requirements for Seeking, are they not?" the girl pressed. "I have great faith in Seekers. Your brethren have always served me well." She looked very regal as she said that, like a queen praising a loyal knight.
Hugh considered what he'd just heard. It was usually smartest to refuse a wizard's quest... but his curiosity was peaked. "All right," he sighed. "I'll Seek your shadow, though I make no promise of Finding it. Might I have the name of my employer?"
"Amanda," she smiled. It was a rather nice smile, and made her sharp nose look less ferret-like.
Hugh inhaled sharply. Like all taverns that played at being respectable, the Moth had its share of shoddy art. The wizard had given him no surname, but it didn't matter. He could guess it. On the wall above his head was a large, sprawling canvas of the old king's seven daughters. While they weren't all related by blood, they were mostly wizards and counted amongst the most formidable women in the world. Hugh was going to do the job he'd been offered whether he liked it or not, and there was a good chance that he wouldn't even get paid. The girl across from him would not take "no" for an answer. She was a Wells.
"So where did you last see your shadow, milady Wells?" Hugh asked, keeping his voice low.
The girl pulled back the collar of her dress to show an ugly purple welt centered between her shoulder and her neck. Hugh whistled. The bruise was ugly. Someone hadn't pulled their blow. In fact, he was rather surprised that Amanda was out walking around at all. Injured like that, she surely would have been better off in bed. "It hit me with a stick several hours ago," she explained.
"Your shadow attacked you?" Hugh demanded.
Amanda nodded. "It was trying to get away."
"Why?" Hugh wondered.
"Well, because if it's still free by sunrise, it'll be free forever," Amanda explained.
"What use does a shadow have for freedom?" Hugh paused. There was something about how Amanda spoke the word "forever" that he didn't like at all.
"A shadow isn't just the absence of light," the girl sighed. "It's the absence of form and reason. It's everything we want but can't have."
"You're a princess, aren't you?" Hugh paused. "Don't you get everything you want?"
"No one gets everything they want," Amanda shook her head heavily. "Honestly, Seeker!"
Hugh snorted. The girl was right, but he wasn't about to tell her so. "So you've accidentally created a monster," he sighed. "How do you intend to get your shadow to stick to you again if I Find it? Sew it on?" He taunted. He seemed to recall a story where someone had done exactly that.
"I was rather hoping we could use this," Amanda replied, producing an emerald the size and shape of a chicken egg. The surface was covered in an intricate pattern of leaves and vines made from gold and bronze, and the egg itself seemed to glow with an inner light. As a Seeker, Hugh was no stranger to precious artifacts. The thing Amanda set on the table in front of him was a pysanka, a magic egg. Those made of the rarest materials were the most valuable. Legends spoke of a great emerald pysanka, a priceless treasure of the House of Wells. If he had doubted the identity of his employer before, he didn't then.
"If you can find my shadow and startle it, I think I can catch it," Amanda explained. "Reattaching it might be more complicated, but this pysanka will hold anything and so long as I have it trapped, it can't do worse than it already has."
Hugh didn't like how that sounded either. "And if it tries to hit me with a stick? He demanded.
"Run," Amanda replied.
"That's your only plan?" Hugh eyed her suspiciously.
"It's the only one that's worked so far," she paused. "Go get your cloak. And a torch. We'll see if we can find it in the woods."
Hugh drank down the rest of his ale. He had a feeling he was going to need it.
The forest was suspiciously quiet. It was a cold, crisp night and the sky was littered with stars. The air was still, and the animals were too quiet. An owl swooped overhead like a ghost. It perched on a branch and gave Hugh a curious look before tearing into the still-writhing mouse clutched in its talons. Blood dripped on the snow.
The owl was a natural thing, no monster, but that grisly scene nevertheless reminded Hugh of his own position. He was out with a woman from the notorious House of Wells, hunting a beast forged of her own blackest thoughts, which she intended to trap in a magic egg. Was he insane?
Would turning his back on his employer prove to be even more dangerous?
He eyed Amanda suspiciously, but only until she looked in his direction.
A branch snapped nearby, and Hugh whipped his torch like a sword. The slightest sound was enough to make his blood run cold. He had his trusty ax, but he somewhat doubted that the good weapon would be able to harm a shadow. At very least, he could use it to parry if the shadow attacked him.
"Are you sure we can't look in the morning?" Hugh asked, watching the long shadows that the trees cast. Was Amanda's shadow nearby? How would he recognize it if it was?
"I must have it back before sunrise! Weren't you listening?" Amanda demanded, her hands on her hips.
"I was listening!" Hugh protested. "But this is crazy! Even if your shadow is out here, how do you expect to find it? This forest is full of shadows! It could be anywhere!"
"That is why I hired you, Seeker," Amanda reminded him.
Hugh realized that he had no choice. He had to Seek it.
Hugh closed his eyes and concentrated. With Amanda standing so close, he could feel her frustration and anxiety. He saw her shadow in his mind's eye, witnessed the moment that it separated from her body, and saw it hurtling through the air like a shooting star. He'd never tried to find a living thing before, that was impossible... but the shadow wasn't exactly alive. When he focused intently, he could see where it had gone. It flitted through the trees, reveling in its freedom. A river rushed below its perch.
They were close.
"Are you using your Seeker spell?" Amanda asked.
"Seekers don't use spells," Hugh lied. "We're not wizards. It's just special training."
Amanda obviously did not believe him, but Hugh didn't care. He'd given the proper answer, the only answer any wizard would ever get from a Seeker. It was bad business to let wizards know that they were being charged for something they could probably do themselves.
"The only real magic I know is fetching. Like so," Hugh took a deep breath. There was one particular thing he could always get if he called for it. A red apple appeared suddenly in his hand. He bit into it. The flavor was crisp and satisfying. No apples could match the ones grown in his father's orchard. "Want an apple?" He asked. "I can also fetch copper dinars. No other coins, unfortunately. Just the small ones that I'm most familiar with."
Amanda smiled slightly. "Well, at least fetching is useful."
"During the war, I wouldn't have traded it for anything," Hugh admitted. "Although I did get sick of apples."
"My sisters are all so talented," Amanda paused, staring up at the sky. "Invocation, illusion, shape-shifting! I'm a useless wizard! The only thing I'm any good at, I'm not allowed to do."
"And what's that?" Hugh prompted.
"I shouldn't tell you," Amanda sighed. "Everyone's so scared of certain Arts, just because certain people misused them. Well, they misused them a lot, and very badly! But my father had the same training as all of his brothers!"
Hugh eyed the girl suspiciously. She was avoiding a word, and he had a good idea what it was. It was no secret that a rare talent ran in the old king's family.
"Are you saying that you're a necromancer?" He hissed.
"Of course not. My father would never allow it, nevermind that he is one himself! I know nothing except what I've gleaned from his old books. Which is why we're out here chasing my shadow," she sighed.
Hugh took a deep breath. Being out in the forest at night with a secretive wizard was one thing... but a black wizard? No wonder her shadow had tried to kill her! If she openly professed an interest in the dark arts, what kind of things did she try to bury?
The path narrowed and began to snake through the trees leading down to the banks of a river. Finding Amanda's shadow was immanent. Hugh could feel its presence in the air.
"Where are you going?" Hugh demanded as Amanda slid down the bank. She stood on a block of stone and stared out over the water. "Be careful down there!"
"You're right," she said. "This is crazy."
"Milady Wells?" Hugh took a step forward.
He saw the girl reach for something, and the moonlight over the river illuminated the emerald pysanka in her hand. As if possessed, she hurled the thing as far as she could, and it disappeared under the dark water with a silent splash.
"Milady?" Hugh repeated.
He reached for her shoulder, and recoiled as she turned to face him. The girl looked very different than she had only moments ago. Her hair was still black, and her eyes were still green, but her features were softer. Everything about her that had seemed disconcerting or awkward was gone, replaced by a poise so perfect it was eerie.
"Who are you?" Hugh demanded.
"I am Amanda," the girl replied innocently. "Her better half, as it were."
"You're the shadow?" Hugh reached for his ax.
"What are you going to do with that ax?" the shadow chided. "Kill me?"
Hugh let his weapon fall. He couldn't kill the girl. He'd never killed anyone, not even back in the war. "You have to stop this," he said, hoping he sounded stronger than he felt.
"Why? She was going to trap me in an egg and try to stick me back on with soap or something equally foolish! Am I wrong doing this on my terms? We are reunited, I keep my freedom, and Amanda gets to be beautiful, talented, and loved by everyone. It's what she wants," the shadow taunted.
"No, it's what she thinks she wants," Hugh corrected.
So that was the girl's dark desire? It seemed so mundane. Who would ever imagine a noble wizard of the House of Wells feeling ugly or lonely?
"Doesn't matter. The pysanka is gone now, I took care of that," the shadow replied. "And now I'll take care of you!"
The shadow moved liquid fast and was on him before he could draw his weapon. It clawed at his face with fingernails like daggers and knocked the wind out of him as it threw him to the ground.
Hugh took a deep breath. He visualized the pysanka as it had flown through the air, and thought about how the moonlight had caught it right before it plunged into the icy waters of the river. He began to feel something solid forming in his right hand, and he clung to that familiarity. He didn't know the object as well as he needed to if he wanted to properly "fetch" it using magic, but it was so distinctive that he could see it clearly in his mind's eye.
The pysanka solidified in his hand, and he smelled sulfur. The spell he cast was a simple fetch, but it was a powerful, blurring the line between trickery and wizardry. The shadow gasped as the egg cracked open in Hugh's grasp. It began to separate from Amanda. For a moment, the girl stared at her own distorted reflection, and then the shadow collapsed into a little black ball. The pysanka sucked it in, and the lid snapped shut. Amanda stared at Hugh, shuddering.
"What just happened?" She asked in a very small voice.
"We Found your shadow," Hugh replied.
"Oh," she murmured.
He took a deep breath. "You know, girl, for being so young, you've got something awful dark inside you," Hugh remarked. He took a deep breath and studied the pysanka. When the moonlight touched on it, he could see the shadow flailing inside, cursing him for his trickery.
"Everybody has a little darkness," Amanda said. "Most people just choose not to acknowledge it." She took the pysanka and stuffed into the pouch on her hip.
"I suppose so," Hugh nodded solemnly.
"And anyway, I'm older than I look," Amanda added.
"Old enough to drink?" Hugh raised an eyebrow in her direction.
She smiled slightly. "Twenty."
"All right, I'll buy you an ale. Let's get out of this cold," Hugh smiled slightly.
They trudged back in the direction of the tavern.